County and city libraries discuss merger

Hennepin County libraries could bail Minneapolis libraries out of their budget woes.

Charley Bruce

The Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library systems are close to becoming one.

The Committee on the Future of Libraries in Hennepin County delayed a recommendation to consolidate the two systems Thursday, but it will still likely advise the move next week.

Chairman John Gunyou said the committee worked through about 75 percent of the merger’s details and will likely finish Feb. 15.

“(The committee) is at the table with a lot of courage to make long-term solutions,” he said.

Gunyou said the next meeting will focus on a merger timeline, the future of closed Minneapolis community libraries and other implementation plans.

He said the committee will only recommend consolidating with a unanimous decision. This recommendation will need approval from the Hennepin County Board, Minneapolis City Council and both library systems.

If accepted, the Minnesota Legislature will consider the merger for additional funding.

“I think the thing of interest is we’ve made a lot of progress in a short period of time,” Gunyou said.

Minneapolis Libraries Director Kit Hadley said the merger idea has been brought up in every decade since the 1920s, but recent developments came from the Minneapolis Library Board.

“The board’s primary focus is on long-term sustainability for library service to Minneapolis residents,” she said.

When the Minneapolis board was working on the library’s 2007-09 budget last year, it became clear that even with reduced service, there wasn’t enough money to sustain quality service in Minneapolis.

“There would be nothing but further reductions in library service in Minneapolis if a change wasn’t made,” said Hadley.

Minneapolis city officials and the board created a library advisory committee to find long-term funding, and determined a merger was a viable solution, she said.

“(The merger) is a reasonable step to take,” said County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.

Hadley said consolidating would mean more stable funding for Minneapolis libraries.

Minneapolis’ system is reliant on local government aide, which is controlled by the state. Hennepin County is almost completely funded by a steady stream of property taxes.

This reliance has some worried about an extra burden on suburban communities, which would then support those libraries formerly in the Minneapolis system.

Gunyou said there wouldn’t be a shift of property taxes during the merger, but it’s unclear what would happen later.

There are many factors, like population growth that would affect property taxes, Gunyou said.

Library Advisory Committee member Jay Kiedrowski said the benefits of merging outweigh the financial costs.

“It’s a case where if you put one plus one together, you actually get three,” he said.

Kiedrowski, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute, said it would be more efficient to buy books for one system. There would be a single cataloguing system and the books would be shared throughout.

Hadley said the consolidation would combine the collections, totaling 4 million; 2.1 million from Minneapolis and the remainder from Hennepin County.

Minneapolis libraries have a wider selection of titles, but Hennepin County currently has more copies of individual titles, she said.

“In a merger you would have the strengths of both systems,” Hadley.

McLaughlin said the funding system for the Minneapolis Public Library is outdated.

McLaughlin said Minneapolis’ finance-system shortcomings were illustrated by the recent library closings and reduced hours.

He said some Minneapolis libraries aren’t open Mondays, the day with the most library traffic.

McLaughlin said he talked to a mentor and his student who went to a public library on a Monday, but couldn’t get in because it was closed.

“The kid was beside himself,” he said.